The Bad Habit that’s Holding Your Technique Back
I recently did a survey asking sax players what was the area of their playing that they’d most like to improve. The answer – well, you can probably guess that based on the title of this article.
While technique is a very subjective term which can be used to describe the sum total of our skill level in all areas of playing the instrument (fast fingers, sound production, intonation, etc), what I’m talking about here is the ability to play things fast and clean.
Avoiding the Obvious
And you know what keeps us from the finger-flashin’ kingdom of Johnny Griffin, Michael Brecker, and Cannonball Adderley? No, it’s not the whole legendary genius thing. You don’t have to be a saxophone god to come to the realization that mentally focusing on your fingers while playing is quite likely to trip them up and add unwanted slop to your playing.
Attention as a Matter of Life or Death
It’s kind of like driving a car down the freeway. If you focus on the fact that you’re moving at 70 miles per hour and then feel yourself flying down the road at the mercy of your hands on the wheel, then you’re likely to lose that sense of oneness with the automobile. And it’s that subconscious feeling of connection to the vehicle that keeps you from wrapping your ride around a light post.
Don’t Think of the Pink Elephant in the Room
Well, same thing goes with the fingers. Many of us are taught to play with our fingers close to the keys. And of course, keeping those fingers as close to the horn as possible is certainly a good habit to get into. But if you’re running through your scales with your mind focused on the feeling of the keys under your fingers as you try to keep them stuck to the pearls, you’re probably going to trip yourself up.
Perhaps it’s because focusing on the fingers introduces a bunch of tension in the hands. Or maybe it’s because you’re creating an additional and unnecessary layer of thinking between the time that the brain tells you to play the note and the time that the note actually comes out. Truth is, I’d be lying if I said I know for sure.
The Irony of Good Technique
While playing high-speed passages, I’ve found that my technique seems to shoot upwards if I focus on something other than my fingers. Keeping the brain away from the digits invariably results in the notes coming out more evenly and my playing feeling that much more effortless.
To give some examples of good places for me to send my brain other than the fingers:
- Imagine playing whatever you’re playing center stage to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Or maybe you’re serenading the love of your life from under a tree beneath his or her bedroom (without being interrupted by neighbors telling you to put the horn somewhere rather uncomfortable). Move around expressively a bit and incorporate varying dynamics if that helps you. If you’re playing an Ab major scale, use make it the most beautiful Ab major scale that the world has ever heard. The point is, focus on creating something beautiful and you’ll find your fingers surprising you with new found nimbleness.
- Pay close attention to your tone quality. Are you getting the sound you really want to have? Think about the “color” of your tone. If you want to sound bright like Hank Crawford, listen for and create brightness in your sound. No matter who or what you want to sound like, put your sound at the forefront of your brain while zipping through those tricky passages, and your fingers will not fail you.
- Focus on relaxation. See how at ease you can be while playing. Become aware of tension in your body – especially in the shoulders, the arms, and the hands, since it’s the muscles in those parts of the body that can really cause you to clench up and restrict your fingers to a clumsy turtle’s pace.
- Focus on the clanking of the keys as they come down on the toneholes. I know that this one is going to be controversial, but what can I say – it’s really helped me. Granted, even if you play 100% cleanly, the sound of the keys coming down might not happen in perfect unison with movement of the fingers. But listening to the clinks and clanks with the expectation that I’ll be hearing those clanks in perfect rhythm really does something to clean my playing up. Now this does seem awfully close to focusing on the fingers, but it’s really listening to the saxophone as a percussion instrument. This is also something that you can focus on while practicing silently, like when you’re staying in a hotel or somewhere where loud and cutting sounds are not appreciated.
So those are just a few suggestions. Give ’em a try, and if you have any thoughts on keeping the mind of the fingers so that the fingers may run free, I’d love to hear ’em!
Photo by Bengt Nyman
November 17, 2011 @ 2:36 pm
Good advice. I like to focus on my breath, which I think works well for me because the breath is so closely tied to expressive elements like tone and dynamics.
The ideas you’ve put forth here remind me a bit of ideas in the book The Inner Game of Tennis, which helped me to look at musical technique and performance in a new light. (There’s also an Inner Game of Music and several other spinoffs, but I still prefer the original Tennis.) Bill Plake’s recent blog post also has some similar ideas.
November 17, 2011 @ 6:06 pm
Focusing on the breath sounds like a great idea! I actually remember Pat Metheny saying that when he’s playing he’ll just focus on something random, like the rug under the bass drum. So the general principle applies to many areas of music (as well as tennis and just about anything else that we’re trying to get good at). This approach really allows us to “let the music play us” and get that inspired but accurate playing happening.
I just saw that Bill published the post you’re talking about, and as always it was chock-full of non-obvious insights. Bill, if you’re reading this, you really should publicize your articles a bit more on Facebook and Twitter so that we don’t miss out! :-)
November 18, 2011 @ 3:42 pm
Highly relevant topic, excellent suggestions, Doron. In my teaching experience, musicians start having trouble when they divide their attention. Either they are completely excluding any awareness of themselves as they get lost into their habitual ways of playing (lots of misdirected energy, tension, etc.), or they are “focusing” too much on only one part of themselves (the fingers, for example) at the expense of excluding the rest of themselves and their external environment. What I aim for in both my teaching and playing could be called “inclusive attention”. In short, integrating the senses to include yourself, what you hear as you play, and even what you see, into a whole experience. The foundation of this integrated attention is breath and balance (particularly the head/neck/back relationship).
When musicians play, they must be aware of many things: pitch, time, tone, dynamics, the response of their own instrument, the activity of other musicians, the structure of the music, to name but a few things. But when we play well we don’t look at these things as separate issues to focus on. Rather, we integrate them into a whole experience. The same can be said about our awareness of our self through our senses. When we include ourselves into the picture in a balanced, non-distracting, integrated manner, we become truly one with the entire process. (As you said, thats when “the music plays us.”)
This is a skill that can be gained through practice. As the great martial artist Bruce Lee said, “Concentration excludes and contracts, awareness includes and expands.” When we practice paying attention to ourselves in a more inclusive, expansive way, our awareness evolves to the point where we don’t have to “look” for what we’re doing with ourselves. Instead what we’re doing with ourselves easily comes to our own attention on its own with no effort, and with no distraction.
As you so accurately stated, placing too much attention on the fingers will most likely lead to problems. It creates something neurobiologists call “hyper-awareness” (your driving on the freeway metaphor is spot on). This hyper-awareness interferes with the brains motor function capacity, creating tension and mal-coordination (again, dividing, not integrating).
Thanks for an excellent article!
November 18, 2011 @ 5:42 pm
Great point, Bill! What you’re describing could be seen as the next level of what’s being covered in this article. For me, I’ve found it helpful to learn to get my overactive brain out of the way first and foremost. Of course, the brain is crucial, but the less thinking, the better in my opinion.
Inclusive attention is indeed something requires practice but in the end, I would think that many of the great players are taking in the totality of their physical being as well as the musical picture being painted around them. I think that this method is highly useful because it’s yet another way to get the overly active brain out of the way so that the music that comes out is pure and natural.
I’d love to learn more about this concept of inclusive attention, though. Do I hear an idea for a post on BillPlakeMusic.com…? :-)
November 18, 2011 @ 6:31 pm
Doron, I don’t think it’s a matter of making your brain less active (or more active for that matter) so much as it is directing your thinking in such a way as to help you the most. Many of us feel like we’re “over-thinking” things when in fact were just thinking unhelpful thoughts (usually micro-managing the details of our activity with an ongoing editorial tone) that lead to self-consciousness (as opposed to self-awareness). But I hear what you’re saying. The primary goal is to quiet the unhelpful chatter of the mind. As for writing an article on my blog about “inclusive attention”, I already have. Here’s the link: http://wp.me/p1IgZc-5M
November 19, 2011 @ 5:54 pm
Yeah, I guess it’s hard to tell the difference between using the conscious mind less or using the conscious mind in a more constructive manner. I know that there’s been research with top performers in athletics, music, and other activities that shows that the people best in their field have a far smaller number of thoughts going through their minds than the average person undertaking the same activity. With music, like you say in your wonderful article, there is just too much to think about as separate areas of thought. So for me, the goal is to direct the brain to the best place where I can take in “the big picture” as effortlessly as possible, whether it means focusing on the body, or focusing on the sound around me, or I would dare say, focusing on the exit sign above the door. :-)
Jason the Obscure
December 30, 2011 @ 2:21 pm
Exit sign above the door………I laughed out loud!
Great series of postings. Thanks.
December 30, 2011 @ 4:19 pm
Glad you enjoyed that! Hey, whatever works, right?
March 21, 2012 @ 8:11 pm
I have my students play with a curved hand like they are going to grip a baseball bat. I make sure they do not go past the pearls that they are on the pearls perfectly. Usually in my experience the right hand is the problem. So many students go past the pearls, some even miss the pearls and hit the brass. That doesn’t last long. I correct both these problems real quick.
I explain that if they played clarinet or open holed flute they would have to hit the keys perfect or a) either the sound will not come out or b) especially on clarinet it will sound like they stepped on the cats tail.
An aside. We had a hotshot tpt player in college who was always making fun of clarinet players for the ocassional squeak. Well he had to play clarinet in woodwind class. Man you should have heard him squeaking and squawking every time he didn’t cover the tone holes properly. After a week or 2 he came out and said that clarinet was hard and he wasn’t going to make fun of clarinet players anymore.
March 22, 2012 @ 8:33 pm
Yeah, clarinet is pretty tricky fingering-wise at first. As far as my sax playing goes, it’s still my experience that thinking about my fingers while I’m playing throws me off. But perhaps I could practice holding my fingers on the keys properly, without even blowing through the horn, just to get what the feeling is like when the fingers are positioned properly. I think that the main goal is to avoid tension, even if it means that fingers aren’t as close to the keys as they could be.
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March 11, 2013 @ 8:55 pm
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April 10, 2013 @ 5:39 am
A bad habit I have developed is inadvertent scooping into some of my notes. I have been recording myself a lot in order to identify these scoops and when they occur, what I am thinking etc. Man this is a tough habit to break-anyone with any suggestions/ideas or corrective measure are very welcome…I assume I am dropping my jaw during these scoops
April 10, 2013 @ 3:27 pm
I would say, practice *slowly* so you can catch yourself and make corrections while the notes aren’t flying by beyond your control.